Kevin Peter of Moterwriter.com caught up with author Mona Gustafson Affinito and got her to talk a little about her latest book Figs & Pomegranates & Special Cheeses. This is what transpired in the tête-à-tête with the author.
Kevin Peter: What’s a typical day in the life of Mona Affinito like?
Mona Gustafson Affinito: Interestingly varied – seeing a client or more, responding to bloggers, signing petitions and catching up on the bad news before noon. (Too much after noon interferes with my sleep.) Doing a bit of singing practice, working on “My Father’s House,” (a fictionalized biography of my father), chatting with people — my daughter, my sister, my niece, quick interludes with my son — maintaining my financial records as I tell myself to reduce expenses, keeping up with friends via e-mail, and spending time with techies as one thing or another goes wrong. Plus some reading in between.
KP: Tell us a little about your background?
MGA: I’m the tail end of three children born into a Swedish American culture. I had the very good fortune to grow up in the same house from one month after I was born until going off to college and grad school. Even then it was there to come home to until shortly after my marriage. My best friend Hallie and I enjoyed adjacent backyards, walked to the same grammar school, took the same bus to High School, shared chicken pox and sundry colds.
A big part of life was Bethesda Lutheran Church. As I tell people, SwedishLutheran is all one word. I decided to be a Lutheran pastor when I was 13. It’s the only time I remember my parents laughing at a goal of mine. Problem: wrong body structure. It was some time after I finally had my Ph.D. in hand that women were admitted into the Lutheran ministry. It’s a good thing. The church and I are better off.
I was married for 20 years to a Catholic Italian American. Some day I’ll write about the problem of mixing cultures. But out of it came our son and daughter and two grandchildren, one of each – all now adults.
My primary occupation for a very long time was as a Professor of Psychology and department administrator, mostly at Southern Connecticut State University. Then it morphed in a very busy full-time practice in Connecticut. Twenty years ago I moved to the twin cities area in Minnesota, because I like it here. The practice and teaching (at Adler Graduate School) got smaller, as did related workshops, and writing took up a bigger space.
Traveled a lot after my divorce, especially after retiring from SCSU. Still do.
I still sing some, get involved in social justice issues, do some workshops on forgiveness. Enjoy life as long as I don’t get swallowed up by bad news after noon.
KP: How did you become a novelist, and have you always wanted to write?
MGA: Yes, I have always wanted to write. But what happened along the way? At Connecticut College for Women I took a Shakespeare course with Miss Bethurum – a very rigorous course. When I wrote a paper on King Lear I got a grade of A- and the suggestion I might prefer to be a Psychology major. I guess I wrote about King Lear instead of the structure of the play. So, the writing has lurked in the background for many years.
KP: How would you describe your writing process?
MGA: Lots of time on the computer, researching. Lots of reading of books on the topic.Then lots of writing in my head – often at 2:00 a.m. Actually, I had to learn a lesson from my sister with the MFA. Do the research, but then just write. That’s not the way it’s done in academia where every thing you say has to be backed up by citation. For writing a novel, the deal is to get deeply familiar with the content and then just go ahead and write. Very freeing.
KP: Just as your writing will inspire others, who are the writers that have inspired you?
MGA: Oh boy! I wish I could say something really intelligent here. My first reaction is to refer to those who write biblical history. I have a couple of shelves full – especially those who bring women of the bible to life. As for the forgiveness work (When to Forgive; Forgiving One Page at a Time) I have stacks of books on the topic. I guess I’m more academic when it comes to those topics, though I have learned to write about it without a citation after every sentence.
There’s one other inspiration I want to mention, though it‘s not writers, but teachers. My grammar school years in Forestville, CT, and high school in Bristol, CT were standouts in the rigorous quality of writing demanded of us – both in grammar and style.
And there was my home where dinners were often long affairs with discussions about religion, current events, and especially language. My father was a stickler for using perfect English. When he first came here from Sweden he determined to learn to speak without an accent. He didn’t like people to make fun of him. Fortunately he never lost the lilt, otherwise he succeeded.
KP: What do you think is the best way to influence others, through your actions and your deeds or through your words?
MGA: Oh my gosh. The answer is short – all of the above. When I was at Boston University working toward my MA, I decided one day to smile at everyone I met. The feedback was amazing. I pretty much do that habitually. (Except in New York City where I’ve been warned that might be dangerous. But I don’t spend much time in New York City.) I focus on looking for the positive in everyone I encounter and let them know I see it. Sometimes it’s not so easy, but worth the effort. That certainly is the basis of my work as a therapist. I don’t want to know what’s wrong with you. I want to elicit the strengths.
KP: Do you believe in the old adage ‘Write what you know.’ Or do you think this shouldn’t apply to fiction writers?
MGA: How can you not write what you know? Dara’s friend Adah is Hallie. That’s because my friendship experience colored the story, not because I intentionally did it. On the other hand, there’s no way I could have written “Figs & Pomegranates & Special Cheeses” without lots of research into what I didn’t originally know. It did help that I had visited Israel so I could picture the terrain.
KP: What’s ‘Figs & Pomegranates & Special Cheeses’ all about?
MGA: Love of family, friends, co-workers in the process of life, home, the divine, devotion. It’s about experiencing joy and terrible sorrow and the lessons one learns. It’s about the question “Why me? Why pain and suffering?” It’s about unearthing the truth of women’s lives, so long hidden under the cover of the emphasis on patriarchy. It’s the story of a life, from childhood to old age.
KP: What attracted you to Dara and why did you decide to tell the story from her point of view?
MGA: Teaching the Psychology of Women opened my eye to so much that’s been hidden about women’s lives. I think my Jewish students were especially inspirational. I remember their pointing out the “woman of virtue” who did all the things we think of today as masculine – buying and selling, … while the men did the “Important” thing of the time, discussing the Torah. Combine my early interest in things biblical with the depth of learning about the psychology of women and you have Dara (who might have been called Sophia – both names meaning “wisdom.”) I give credit also to the example of my aunts who never stopped working – I mean in addition to all the housewife, mother stuff. They gave the lie – without realizing it – to the fiction that men did the work “out there” while women kept the home fires burning. But don’t get me started! It’s all too important and fascinating, and still in need of more publication.
KP: What are the qualities in Dara that you found best and worth emulating?
MGA: Dara loves with intensity. I like that. But I especially like the way she tackles things head on – no pussyfooting with Dara. I like the way her temper activates her to productive learning and doing. Also, I don’t know how much it shows, but I like the subtle, even sarcastic humor that sustains her. And I like her ability to experience and display joy.
KP: How much of research was involved to form the back story and to get the historical facts right?
MGA: A lot! First there was what I had picked up in my academic life and the biblical study groups in which I have participated. That just sort of happened. But I can mention specifically my trip to Israel, long before Dara developed, where I already had the possibility in mind of writing about Job’s wife. Everywhere I went I pictured her presence.
And then there’s Stu Johnson, my e-mail friend from Alabama, who took such joy in looking up the flora and fauna, and suggesting things to elaborate. The last chapter in the book includes his story. There’s also Brevard Child’s, the Hebrew Testament scholar at Yale who confirmed that the woman of virtue in Proverbs 31:10-31 would accurately be a description of Job’s wife, all of it being a part of wisdom literature. Sadly, both of those men have ended this earthly part of their journey.
So yes, reading, searching the web, talking with knowledgeable people, all were involved. That’s why I felt the need to write the addendum, “The Story of the Story.”
KP: What are some of the conflicts Dara faced that the modern-day woman will also be able to relate with?
MGA: Leaving home and family for new cultures; maintaining a balance between one’s own beliefs and those of one’s spouse; keeping friendships alive when circumstances produce divides; surviving unexpected trials without caving and instead, developing new strengths; respecting one’s own aging. Allowing oneself to experience joy.
KP: Were you apprehensive at any point while appropriating a story from the bible and narrating your own version of it?
MGA: Not once I’d gathered the info, and especially Brevard Child’s affirmation. I think when I was younger I might have worried about my theological assumptions – that some people would disagree, maybe even with anger. There is an advantage to the confidence, or shell? that comes with age.
KP: What are you expecting readers to take away from this book?
MGA: The sense of having enjoyed a good read.Thoughts to mull about life, faith, gods, and God.
KP: What are your future plans? What more can the world expect from Mona Gustafson Affinito?
MGA: I’m working on the fictionalized biography of my father who came to the U.S. from Sweden in 1910 at the age of 20. And yes indeed, that requires a lot of research – partly because I came along eight years behind by next oldest sibling so there’s lot I have to learn from her. Unfortunately my big brother is gone. He could have added a lot.
I’m lucky my son-in-law is deep into genealogy, so he gives me lots of basics. But there’s all the other stuff that went on in the world. For example, I realized that my father and his best man would have gone for draft physicals the day before my parents got married, though my father wouldn’t have been called to serve because he was not yet a citizen. I also knew his best man, known only by his nickname, was killed in WWI. I managed to figure out who he was, where he lived and died, and how he had been honored in his hometown. Or, just recently, I have my father arriving at Ellis Island. That took a lot of research to describe what it would have been like. Fortunately there is a local social studies teacher who actually demonstrates the experience for his students, so I learned a lot from him.
In short, it is a difficult and fun process.
KP: Reading anything at the moment?
MGA: Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Hannah, Delivered; Anne Lamott, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of grace; Lindsay Hardin Freeman & Karen N. Canton, The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women; Christopher Chabris& Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla: How our Intuitions Deceive us. And my favorite magazines, “Yes,” “The Intelligent Optimist,” “Sojourners.” Plus magazines like “Scientific American” and “Popular Science” that my son hands down to me. More work related are “The Writer;” “Writer’s Digest,” and “Psychotherapy Networker.”
KP: And lastly, thank you for parting with your valuable time Mona Gustafson Affinito and all the very best for your book.
MGA: You’re welcome. It was fun.